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The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has launched an international coalition to encourage scientists to promote human rights around the world.

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, which represents science organisations from seven countries and hopes to attract a global membership, was launched in Washington DC earlier this month (14–16 January).

Speaking at the launch, Mary Robinson, former UN high commissioner for human rights, told scientists and their representatives, "When the target is human suffering and the cause human rights, mere rhetoric is not adequate."

"Marshalling the array of scientific tools, techniques and technologies that your disciplines collectively possess will make it more likely that we get the job done."

The coalition's main purpose is to champion the human right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. The right — set out in article 15 of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — is largely ignored by governments, and there is little international agreement on what it means.

It includes an onus on governments to "respect the freedom indispensible for scientific research and creative activity".

The coalition will bring together scientists and human rights organisations to hammer out the details of what article 15 means. Over three years it will develop a UN proposal for seeking international agreement on how to clarify the article and encourage its implementation.

Other aspects of the coalition's work will be initiated by five working groups, on issues ranging from the welfare of scientists to science ethics.

This year it plans to publicise best practice in defending scientists' human rights, develop an international human rights framework for science ethics, and produce case studies of successful partnerships between scientists and human rights organisations.

Science organisations involved in human rights have traditionally focused on defending scientists whose lives or intellectual freedom is under threat — countries recently under the spotlight include Iran and Iraq.

Advances in science have also greatly aided human rights activity. Robinson cited the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, whose forensic and genetic science tools have made it possible to identify victims in mass graves and help bring perpetrators to justice.

Another aim of the coalition is to encourage scientists to bring a human rights perspective into their work.

"I would urge you to integrate a human rights approach into scientific research and development — for example, to ensure that vaccine research and development is of benefit to all, including treatment for diseases that predominantly affect poor women and girls," said Robinson.